Mary Medlicott, Storyteller and Author - Storyworks

Storytelling starters ~ We are painters

Fascinating how what is true in one art form can have such meaning for another! On Wednesday, we went to the Wigmore Hall in central London to be in the audience for a Masterclass given by Thomas Quasthoff with four young baritone singers.

Quasthoff is a bass baritone of extraordinary eminence, all the more extraordinary because he was born with such severe birth defects as to make him under 5 feet tall. Also his arms are severely foreshortened. These defects result from the fact that when his mother was pregnant with him, she was prescribed thalidomide, the drug which was afterwards realised to have such horrendous effects.

What Quasthoff did:

Over the course of three hours at the Wigmore Hall, Quasthoff commented, demonstrated, made the audience laugh and, throughout, gripped the attention of all. What struck me so strongly apart from the sheer enjoyment of witnessing the mastery of this man was the clarity and purpose of some of the main points he made. These seemed to me to be so closely related to storytelling that I constantly found myself nodding and smiling inside myself.

When we are singing from the stage, said Quasthoff, we are painters. We are painting the scenes for the audience and as the performer, you must see the scenes that the song is conveying. Your face must show the feeling of them, your gestures must reflect them. This must happen to bring the song alive.

And how brilliantly Quasthoff was able to demonstrate this. How quickly – but with no over-emphasis – he could convey a mood and a change in the mood as tension built or emotion increased.Emotion was another aspect Quasthoff focused on. What we need to convey, he said, is the emotion of the song. We need to make the audience feel the emotions. He said this several times and then, at one point, he paused to expand on why this is so important now, today. Today, he said, we are so overwhelmed by technology and life is so busy and crowded. We really need to share emotion with people who come to hear us and return them to the root of what matters.

For song, read story:

So true of storytelling too, I kept thinking. Visualising. Painting the scenes. Conveying the emotions. Making us feel things inside ourselves. And what was most profound for me was seeing the truth of the fact that you cannot fake these things. The performer really has to be where it matters, in the heart of what is being performed.

By the way, I don’t think this is true only when the performer is on a stage as at the Wigmore Hall. Performance is also happening when you are with a bunch of 5-year olds in a school or in a workshop with adults. The nature of the performance changes with the circumstances. But in the sense in which Quasthoff talked about it, it is essentially performance whether it is of a song or a story.

The man:

After the Wigmore Hall masterclass, I looked up Thomas Quasthoff on my computer. The story of his life made me gasp. The evidence of it had been visible on the Wigmore Hall stage. Now I was thinking about what he personally had done to get where he is today. By now he has given up his big singing career except that he is now singing jazz and also, of course, he’s still teaching. But what bravery and persistence there must have been from the earliest days of his life, what trust in the power he felt within him and what belief in his own voice. Here’s just the beginning of what Wikipedia says  about him:

Early life and career:

Quasthoff was born in Hildesheim, West Germany, with serious birth defects caused by his mother’s exposure during pregnancy to the drug thalidomide which was prescribed as an antiemetic to combat her morning sickness. Quasthoff is 1.34 m (4′ 4¾”) tall, due to shortening of the long bones in his legs, and he has phocomelia of the upper extremities with very short or absent long bones.

Quasthoff was denied admission to the music conservatory in Hanover, Germany, owing to his physical inability to play the piano, rather than a lack of skill required for entry to the conservatory. In the early stages of his education as a singer, Quasthoff was promoted by Sebastian Peschko. Thus, he chose to study voice privately. He also studied law for three years. Prior to his music career, he worked six years as a radio announcer for NDR. He also did voice-over work for television.

And so it goes on. In itself, it’s a most profound and thought-provoking story.

PS: Photos for today? Well, there are plenty of photos of Thomas Quasthoff on the internet. Choosing what photos to use here from what my blog calls my media library, I picked out the first to focus on the idea of ‘character’ and the second because it made me think what it must be like to see piano keys without having the means to play them.

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